Saturday, March 30, 2013

Een redelijk onschuldige handeling

Youp van t HekI didn’t get to bed until late last night.  The long Easter weekend allows for some uninterrupted quiet time to catch up with a few big jobs, so I was hunched at my desk until midnight, summarizing data for an upcoming anesthesiology meeting, preparing my first quarter VAT returns, and getting business cards scanned into my address book.

All delightful jobs, to be sure.

Which I why I laid in for a rare hour of idleness this morning, avoiding work, reading Youp van ‘t Hek’s collection of essays, Klein Gelijk, and listening to This Week in Google.

Yes, the two are incongruous, but they will come together in a moment.

No, if you were here, I would be more likely to be making buttered-eggs with lemon for breakfast instead of reading.

And, yes, I work too hard.

So, I’m reading Bejaardengevangenis (the title’s irony is not lost on me)  when Gina Trapani chirps in my ear that good things are happening with Google Translate.  Google TranslateI’m way ahead of you, I smiled, having previously blogged that Dutch dictionaries could now be downloaded for offline use.

If you speak a sentence it can translate it, transcribe it, and say it, corrected Gina.

No way.  I pulled up Translate on my Nexus.

“I go to the store”.  Ik ga naar de winkel, immediately returned, along with a credible verbalization.

“I’m going to be late for my meeting.” Ik kom te laat voor mijn afspraak.

“I’m looking for a book of postmodern philosophy.”  Ik ben op zoek naar een boek van postmoderne filosofie.

My tablet was pulling ahead of me now.  I felt a bit like the Swiss AI researcher in The Fear Index who discovers that his computer has become smarter than he is.

I reversed the languages.

“Ik ga naar de winkel.”  I go to the store.

“Het gevolg van een redelijk onschuldige handeling,” reading from ‘t Hek.  Gibberish returned.

I fiddled with the pronunciation, word by word.  I spoke with too much o, not enough u on onschuldige, not enough separation between words, wrong syllable emphasis on handeling.

Bit by bit, it fell into place.

It’s no substitute for a good teacher, but it’s not far from being a fantastic interactive learning tool.  And it’s all free.

DSC06940And with the morning’s fun concluded, I’m off to sample my Paasbrood

Friday, March 29, 2013

The thinking hats

I decided to take a break from the snow and the startups today and attend two seminars this week: an Innovation Masterclass at St. Johns Innovation Centre, and a CETC forum debating the Cambridge 2030 initiative.


The Innovation workshop promised to offer creative problem solving techniques, help generate new ideas that will unlock new market opportunities, grow sales and improve bottom line performance.  We can all use a little more of that.

The event was sponsored by the new UK Department of Business Innovation and Skills, combining key government support services: UKTI (international trade), MAS (manufacturing advisory services), and GA (the growth accelerator).  GA turns out to be a coaching service, which means it’s self-consciously loud, superficially enthusiastic, and looking for paying clients.

6 hatsThe seminar used a decision methodology, the Six Hats, that force examination of problems from different angles.  They roughly parallel the Myers Briggs dimensions of personality and simulate bringing diverse opinions together.

We brainstormed Burger King: Who comes to the restaurant (teens, families, businessmen looking for WiFi), What do they want (predictable, clean, safe, convenient, cheap), How could it go wrong (kids get sick, manager hassles you, gang uses it as a clubhouse), How would you present it (clean the rest rooms, patrol the parking lot, train the staff).

The level of business-speak would make Lucy Kellaway sigh.  Do people talk about leveraging asset-based customer-centric skillsets because of training, peer pressure, aspirations, or simplicity?  Innovation is not exploiting invention to deliver transformative value, it’s simply creatively doing things better.  I innovate because it’s a kick, it’s fun, it gets appreciation, not because it builds sustainable barriers to competition while maximizing customer value.

In all, a wasted two hours of being hot-boxed like I was being sold a Turkish rug.  ‘better to spend your time browsing MindTools.


The CETC seminar, in two-hour contrast, was thoughtful, informative, and even somewhat inspiring. The problem is “What should Cambridge Become?”, and a local group has been hosting public forum around ten key topics like transport, waste, housing, education, and culture.  Their two-year outputs had to be a single sheet of recommendations on A4 paper, and a single slide: jargon was completely absent.

It highlighted two things for me.

First, the limits of land use maps.  Cities are living things and the problems have to do with flows.  How do you move people, goods, water, information through a city; where do you connect (not direct) new businesses and  homes?

Second, the sprawling impact of decisions.  AstraZeneca is building a research facility and creating 10,000 new jobs.  Wonderful!  But that brings 30,000 new people, and their cars, wanting housing, sending children to schools.  Who provides for all of that; who pays for all of that?  And what does it do to the quality of life for everyone else?

Cam Biomed Campus Plan

A member of the County Council responded.  Most political discussion is us/them, takers/makers, news-bites that pass for reasoned debate.  In contrast, this bureaucrat had really spent a lot of time thinking about these questions, talking with government officials from nearby villages, and implementing solutions.

What do we do with green belts?  He wanted to convert a bit of fallow farmland into parks and homes.  I disagree, but I respect the discussion that balanced the viewpoints.  What about a congestion charge to limit traffic in the center and pay for expanded transport?  It wouldn’t work if all the money raised went to Whitehall.  What about ideas to link schools and businesses more tightly?  he knew what was being tried and what might work.

When he talks about the frustrations of raising local revenue and ideas, then losing it to national taxes and regulations, he voiced the same frustrations as any business owner.  I’d hope that government has lots of folks like this, and that we realize they have a constructive role in building and maintaining communities.

I navigate the Border Agency procedures, ride the Guided Bus, pay my Council Taxes, set up shop in the Incubator.  I’m glad to meet people taking the long view of how to make it all work together and better.

The GA could take a few lessons.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Blame the NAO



It is really cold.



Not just a little cold.  It is inches of snow, wind cutting through the coat, fingers numb on the bike cold.   And it just drags on, sub-zero day after slippery day.  Dutch snow on Sunday, Sheffield snow today:  More snow everywhere by Easter.

It seems like more than just a cold snap, a ‘northwester, or series of fronts.   And there is an answer.


This is the Arctic Oscillation (AO),  a measure of air pressure over the Arctic.  When it is negative, the low pressure trough centered over the north pole is weaker than normal.  This, in turn, leads to weaker westerly winds across the North Atlantic from Canada towards Europe and allows cold Arctic air to slide farther south than usual.  Cold.


Allied with this is the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), a complementary pair of balanced pressure centers over Iceland and the Azores.  Negative value indicate a weakening of the center over Iceland and slackening of the jet stream, letting cold air slide undisturbed even further south.  It also drives precipitation patterns and storms.  Snow.

NAO-NegThese are big, climatic air masses which determine the air circulation that drives the daily weather.  At he moment, the graph and projections indicate that the cold weather will continue well into April.

There are lots of places to read more, but this presentation is a pretty good start.

Stay warm!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Finishing travel and tech notes

Two quick things today: a few tech notes for Win8 and the Nexus (including Dutch language tools), and closing out my February travel.

And wondering what the sculpture is doing in the Wyck…

Travel blogging, briefly, first.  I was on the road in February for a couple of weeks, both busy and disconnected throughout.  I did scribble a lot of impressions and I took a lot of pictures, planning to backfill the bloggy bits afterwards.

Backfilling the blog is a lot of work, and not something I’ll try to do again.  I think that it loses spontaneity, things get placed into context rather than as stand-alone ideas, and I  the passage of time causes the writing to be more analytic.

It is done, it was a good experiment, but I won’t do it again.

Start8On the tech side, I’m giving up on trying to operate Windows 8 without a touchscreen.  To regain control and sanity, I’ve installed a couple of simple add-ins: Start8,  restoring the Start Menu, and ModernMix, allowing Apps to run within desktop windows.  If you are upgrading from Win7 to Win8, this will restore your productivity .

Microsoft has also released IE10 for Windows 7: it’s a worthwhile upgrade.  It is much faster than the old version, which was completely unusable, and seems more stable than Chrome (which has lately been suffering a lot of Flash and Shockwave crashes).

The core Mail and People Apps on Win8 have also been updated, but both are still far short of what is needed.  I’m staying with Google Contacts and for now.

And it turns out that LinkedIn did scan my mail headers, not my contact list, for 325 new contacts.  I’m getting connected to folks I only know vaguely, but who are now populating my address book.  ‘never just click “OK”.

On the Dutch side, Google Translate has introduced Offline Translation, so you don’t need an internet connection to compose and explore between Dutch and English.  BabylonIt’s great for quick, everyday tasks.

Babylon is still my preferred dictionary, and I use the three Van Dale plug-ins so that I have official word books close to hand.  They are pushing Version 10, but aren’t promising that the plug-ins will still work, so I’m hanging back one release.

Finally, the NT2 School portal, with online, interactive version of the Delft Method green and gold books, is wonderful.  I’m using a combination of this tutorial and the Boom site for NT2 preparation, supplemented by daily book and newspaper reading, occasional online TV viewing, and an hour’s live conversational tutorial each day I’m in Maastricht.

I’ll get there.

Disclaimer:  As always, these thoughts are my own and I buy all of the products I talk about.